Following a 15-year tenure as executive producer of Canadian Sesame Street and seven more years , from 1990 to 1996, as head of youth and children’s programming at Radio-Canada, Michel Lavoie is retiring as of March 31.
A thoroughly bicultural Canadian with an international perspective, Lavoie’s colleagues describe him as a bright and caring individual, an especially creative program administrator who’s worked as a director and writer, all sustained by a playful and indeed mischievous sense of humor.
Commenting on the state of children’s programming at R.-C., Lavoie says the biggest evolution has been the ongoing downsizing. ‘Radio-Canada has always been a major in-house producer of children’s programs, there’s a long tradition of this. But with the funding pressures–and this is about political will–what has been wanted is the downsizing of in-house production and to give it to industry. Like it or not, that’s where we are going,” he says.
The money is in the private sector, “that’s where the future is,” says Lavoie, adding the pendulum must return because shutting down the network’s in-house children’s operation would be a monumental mistake.
“There has to be places in our society, and I think public television is the right place, for permanent reflection onissues related to children. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the private production houses. Those people are profit-motivated, and that’s their job.”
Higher ACT profile
Lavoie is an active member of the Alliance for Children and Television and has sat on its board since 1990. “The Alliance is a group of people who care about good children’s programming…ACT’s role as a national advocacy group will be heightened in the months ahead as it intends to push harder with both the CRTC and Heritage Minister Sheila Copps for more funding for quality Canadian children’s programming. Television for children is a social enterprise and should be considered a part of the country’s heritage. It can just be commercially driven…Our children’s outlets afe becoming so commercial and I’m not going to name them. Watch some of the specialty channels in English Canada and you’ll get the impression you’re watching ABC or CBS or the worst of the Americans, at least in term of ads. Our kids are being bombarded. They are not consumers, they’re kids! It’s pernicious and the Alliance is going to address this. It isn’t a question of being the purest of the pure. This is a motherhood statement and I believe it.”
Lavoie returned to R.-C. from CBC in 1989 and was named director, children’s, youth and family programming in 1990, a post he held until last year. The department’s expanded mandates includes sociocultural and religious programs.
As head of youth programming, Lavoie’s duties included the creative direction, development and broadcasting of over 1400 hours of programs annually, supervising a staff of 65, including 20 producers and managing a budget of 15 million.
His accomplishments as department head are many.
He takes competitive pride in the fact audience share at the French-language public network has increased during his watch, especially among tweens and teens and in weekend programming slots where R.-C. dominates.
Over the years he’s worked closely as a broadcaster and creative consultation many ground-breaking series, programming that’s exported throughout the world.
Among the top independent series licensed by Lavoie are Pacha et les chats/Kitty Cats, produced by Prisma Productions; Iris, le gentil professeur, La Petite Étoile and la Maison de Ouimsie/Wimzie’s House, produced by Cinar Films.
He licensed the Gemeaux Award-winning teen soap opera Watatatow and has helped develop a new teen series, Le Grand Écart.
As head of the service, Lavoie programmed, originated and revamped a slew of popular magazine shows including SDA’s Les Débrouillards and Sur la piste, Génies en Herbe, a school-age quiz program, Pixcom’s annual teen specials Ici Ados Canada and the highly innovative international competitive doc series La Course Destination Monde
As exec producer, Lavoie created two very successful in-house week-end series Vazimolo (1991) and Bouledogue Bazar (1994), both of which earned audience shares of 65 and over.
In ’95, R.-C. became the first French-language network to create an original children’s Web site, an award-winning site piloted by Lavoie.
“What I like about it is the convergence and interactivity…whatever that means. The kids are going to be there. And it’s close to good educational television, which is where my heart is. Television is the classroom of the world. Remember when we used to say that? Well, it’s truer than ever.”
Canadian Sesame Street
Lavoie’s duties as exec producer on Canadian Sesame Street (1975-1989) included the development of the show’s scripting and educational concepts, and the administration and management of personnel at 10 production centers across the country. During his 15 year tenure, thousands of hours of film, video and animation segments were produced in both official languages.
His duties also included liaising with the Children’s Television Workshop, the show’s creators, and over the course of the mandate, Lavloie wrote and directed some 500 episodes.
In 1985, he was asked, in association with Jim Henson Associates, to launch the show’s Canadian muppet contingent: Dodi, the bilingual Louis, Basil the Bear, et al. The first TV special, Basil Hears a Noise, took home a prestigious CableAce Award in 1990.
The show has been an unparalleled hit with small fry and their parents. By the mid ’80s it was being broadcast six times a week, reaching more than 75% of kiddies aged two to six. Indeed, for more than 10 years during lavoie’s tenure, Canadian Sesame Street was the most watched preschool program in the country. And the Canadian version was the only version exported to the U.S.
At one point the show’s producers were in 10 centers right across the country. It was really the way the network was supposed to be in those days.
Lavoie says one of the great things about Sesame Street was its introduction of high-quality production values and breakthrough declaration of ‘Kids derserve the Best!”
The other thing was the research. For the first time, we started using research data in television, and it made for better television in a way.
Lavoie says today’s elite band of Canadian puppeteers were trained on shows like Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, Romper Room, etc). “The Big Comfy Couch’s Rob Mills is a Sesame Street graduate.
Outside the children’s sector, Lavoie has directed and produced a variety of TV programs over the years.
Lavoie serves and has served as a consultant and board member at many public advocacy, broadcasting and government agencies including Heritage Canada, the European Broadcasting Union, the CRB Foundation, C.I.F.E.J., the international children’s and youth programming organization and Prix Jeunesse International.
He has published extensive research on television formats, design and children’s preferences.
A very young looking retiree Lavoie says he intends to teach and consult as well as take on new projects, perhaps ones with an international dimension. He hopes to continue to work with children.